You can hardly turn a page or click a link in the marketing press without reading about the New Normal, the new world post-Covid 19. Take it all at face value and you will have spent the last two months tearing up your marketing rule-book, and burning each page one by one.
Let’s assume you haven’t actually set fire to the library because, like most people, you are not sure you actually believe you should. What are you going to do instead?
Should We Change the Fundamentals of Marketing?
Unless the rules of capitalism change, the role of marketing will not change and nor will its essential rules. Marketing is there to ensure the company is focused on producing the right product or service for the right buyer. At its broadest definition, it is also responsible for making sure the company’s products and services are available at the right time, in the right place and at the right price.
And in a more limited modern interpretation of the function, it is responsible above all for making sure the customer is aware of the benefits of buying it – the communication of the marketing message.
To quote the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the formal definition is “the management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”
Note the word ‘profitably’. This is a great capitalist principle underpinning the commercial structure of the world we live in. And none of those fundamentals are going to change any time soon.
However – there is no doubt that some things have changed over the intense period of the world’s history that was the first half or 2020. And adjustments have to be made for them.
Has Anything Changed?
There have been undeniable changes in the order of the world over the last three months. Things don’t get much more disruptive than confining the majority of the world’s human population to home for three months and forbidding almost all forms of physical contact with other human beings.
Every organisation and institution has had to adapt to the new circumstances. Economic activity has been hugely disrupted (in many cases fatally so for the company concerned) and people’s day-to-day lives and prospects have been turned upside down. Those are some pretty major changes.
What has not changed, in any way at all, is human nature. We haven’t changed in this respect for hundreds of thousands of years. We are still driven by the same basic needs. We still nurture those same ‘inalienable rights’ so beautifully expressed in the American constitution, which are built on deep insight into human nature. And any marketing professional who assumes the rule-book has changed at this level is heading for a major fall.
Human nature is also inherently (in most cases) conservative, with a small ‘c’. The deepest longing that you hear from almost everyone with an opinion is that they need to ‘get back to normality’ – that is, as close as possible to how things were before. This is most certainly what will happen. The question we can’t answer is just how close the world can get to how things were before, and what will actually be different.
“It’s Not Me, it’s the World”
Here’s what has really changed – and what might stay changed. Not the rules of society and humanity, not human nature, but human behaviour. And not even most of that, just a few details – but enough to make people think that the world might actually have become very different.
Psychologists will tell you that new habits can be ingrained by repetition of new behaviours. Marketing people subscribe to the theory that getting people to buy a new product a set number of times constitutes a permanent buying behaviour change, as it became habitual – the only argument tends to be about how many times the action needs to be repeated before it becomes permanent.
Without doubt, many new habits have been formed over the lockdown period. Some are not obvious but are quite fundamantal – in the UK for instance, for the first time since such things were first measured, people have started to pay off credit card debt rather than increasing it month by month.
They have quite simply stopped buying so much stuff, either because it became impossible to do so or because they decided they didn’t need it at the moment. Car sales fell to their lowest level since 1947. Nobody has eaten at a restaurant or a café for three months. Nobody has watched or taken part in a live sports event.
International travel has almost ceased altogether, indeed all travel has fallen to levels nobody would previously have imagined were possible. Here’s a personal one – people have had to do without their daily coffee ration for the whole duration, unthinkable at the beginning of the year.
Then there is the digital world – people unquestionably are shopping more on line (although not enough to make up for the lack of shopping on the high street), meetings are held on line rather than in an office, dependency on the internet for news and social connection has increased.
All this is major change. But it is behavioural change and nothing more.
The question is – what is the marketing world to make of it all? And how should it react?
The True Challenges for Marketing
There are three possible reactions to this new situation. And businesses can work to any of these assumptions, based on the principles of human behaviour and habit.
- You can assume that all or most of the behaviour changes are now habitual and therefore permanent
- You can assume that the changes are not permanent and that behaviour will over time revert to how things were before
- You can seek to influence behaviour to your commercial benefit through business behaviour and your interactions with the customer – in other words, through your marketing
Taking the first option is fraught with danger. Many of the behaviour changes are due to temporary changes in the law, and restrictions are now being relaxed to allow a gradual return to the ‘old normal’ which political leaders assume is what everybody wants (that small-c conservative approach in action). Do you truly believe that people won’t be queuing outside the coffee shops again as soon as they re-open?
The second option two is probably too extreme an assumption. It could be that some of the behavioural changes we have learned are now habits and will become permanent. For instance, now we have discovered that we really don’t need to travel to work every day to talk to our colleagues, it’s likely that companies and employees will take permanent advantage of not needing to do so. So if you think that everything will go back to how it was before, keep a close eye on what is happening out there and be ready for some fast reactive footwork over the next year or two.
Option three is the most intriguing one. Marketing communications have always sought to influence behaviour. It’s just that mostly we have stuck to buying behaviour, communicating the benefits of one brand over another. Maybe marketing people need to turn their thoughts to other behaviours.
We are going to have to think about re-launching whole categories, not just making the case for one brand over another. Can we provide and communicate new reasons why people should go back to previous habits? For instance, can we rebuild the case for shopping in the high street – what arguments can be assembled beyond financial ones? Can we persuade people that the potential health risks of flying are outweighed by the benefits? Every market has its own challenges.
How Different is Different?
This could just be the most interesting time to be involved in marketing for decades. We have learned a lot about marketing over the last few decades, and a lot about human behaviour over the last few months. Add all the lessons together for maximum effect – but be cautious about tearing up too much of that rule-book.
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